Cisco's Optical Switching Fabric?

Its investment in IMMI, a startup making low-loss MEMS subsystems, is about to be announced

February 12, 2001

3 Min Read
Cisco's Optical Switching Fabric?

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) appears to have picked one of the candidates for the switching fabric of its future all-optical switches.

It will use MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) based subsystems from Integrated Micromachines Inc. (IMMI), judging by an announcement that IMMI plans to make today, Feb 12.

IMMI will unveil Cisco as the mystery “major telecom equipment vendor” that participated in the $45 million round of funding that it announced last November (see Dark Horse Joins Optical Switch Race). In fact, Cisco contributed around $25 million to the round, Light Reading has learned.

IMMI has been developing MEMS-based optical switches for more than five years but has kept a low profile until recently. Its big claim to fame is that its switching subsystems have much lower loss than competing products. Steve Walker, IMMI’s 3D program manager, cites a loss of 3 decibels regardless of switch size. Other vendors such as OMM Inc. cite losses of 6 decibels or more for a 32x32 2D switch and say losses increase considerably for larger-scale 3D switches.

IMMI also claims that its switches consume far less power than competing products. A maximum of 10 volts is needed to turn the mirrors that deflect streams of light pulses from input to output port, according to Walker. That’s because IMMI uses electro-magnetic rather than much weaker electro-static turning forces, he says. The upshot of this is that IMMI’s subsystems are less prone to absorbing moisture and going wrong, Walker contends.

IMMI plans to make a wide range of switching subsystems -- from 1x1 devices that simply act like a door, blocking light in a single fiber, to 1000x1000-port monsters. It expects to start shipping “a large port-count crossconnect” -- one with more than 100x100 ports -- in the third or fourth quarter of this year. It plans to sell its subsystems to vendors developing products for carriers.

At the time of IMMI’s previous announcement, Walker told Light Reading that IMMI was “already making boxes together” with the mystery backer that now turns out to be Cisco. So, what might those boxes be?

One might be the ONS 15900 Wavelength Router, the switch that Cisco got when it acquired Monterey Networks. The 15900 is designed so that it can accommodate a future optical core as a replacement or possible addition to its current electrical core, according to John Adler, Director of Marketing for Cisco's Wavelength Routing Business Unit. This is reflected in the switch’s architecture and in such things as internal connections, which are all monomode fiber, Adler says.

It’s also possible that IMMI’s subsystems could form a future core of the smaller, metro optical switch, the ONS 15232, which Cisco is developing (see Cisco Preps New Optical Switch ).

The chances are that IMMI won't be alone in providing Cisco's optical switching fabric. In fact, Cisco has already bought MEMS-based subsystems from OMM, according to OMM's S-1 filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

OMM is the only company currently shipping commercial MEMS-based optical switching subsystems. Its investors include Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Siemens AG (Frankfurt: SIE), and Sycamore Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: SCMR).

-- Peter Heywood, international editor, Light Reading

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